Old Time Religion: Contemplating Silence

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Note: the following is a discussion of themes and ideas within the film ‘Silence’, and thus will contain a number of plot details.

In exploring ‘silence’, eminent composer John Cage gave us four minutes and thirty three seconds of pretentious twoddle. Some might enjoy listening to literally nothing while a conductor floats a baton over an air of emptiness, but I personally think it’s just the sort of thing people did back in 1952 to appear cool and edgy, and a way for little Johnny to make a mint from, like I said, literally nothing. Sending off a blank piece of paper to an orchestra and pretending it’s all about contemplating silence might go down well with the artsy fartsy crowd (the sort that would mistake a pair of glasses for art), but I’d much prefer a 160-minute epic historical drama.

Yes, I’m talking about Silence, based on the 1966 Shūsaku Endō novel and in development by director Martin Scorcese for a whole quarter century. It’s a tremendously ambitious film, following the story of two 17th Century Christian missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel to Japan to find their mentor (Liam Neeson), of whom they have heard rumours of apostasy. (more…)

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The Very Best Games of 2016: My Top 3

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Last year was really quite amazing for games, and while I have neither the cash nor the time to play them all (for that you’d probably need a good job and Bernard’s watch), I played my fair share of killer titles. Most of the cool kids do a top ten or a top five, but I’ve decided to spend some quality time here with my top three, as well as mentioning a few runners-up. See? I’m cool in my own way.

RUNNERS UP

// Dark Souls III: It’s my least favourite of all the Souls entries, but its bosses, level design and sense of progression once again put other games to shame. Read a little thing I wrote about it here// Inside: the developers of the celebrated 2010 platformer Limbo return with something every bit as twisted. Many have debated its themes of mind control and manipulation, but it’s the gameplay that truly shines. In spending six years working on an experience that lasts three hours, Playdead created a nigh perfect video game with innovative mechanics that are a pleasure to control. It’s deliciously, darkly atmospheric, and the finale is magnificent. // The Last Guardian: This puzzle-adventure followup to the 2005 masterpiece Shadow of the Colossus was certainly worth the wait. Though bogged down by an unwieldy camera, the relationship between the young protagonist and huge bird-dog-cat-thing Trico is beautiful and believable. It’s quite possibly the best use of an AI companion in games. // Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End: Nathan Drake’s concluding adventure is big-budget cinematic gaming at its absolute finest. The story and voice acting are spectacular, it looks phenomenal, and its set pieces are so jaw-dropping I almost couldn’t believe I was playing them. The series’ previous forays into the supernatural are abandoned in favour of a compelling historical mystery surrounding the Caribbean pirates, and it’s all the better for it. Did I mention it’s about pirates? // 

And now, on with the show… (more…)

2016: The Year in Review, Part Three: Don’t Breathe to Rogue One

Disclaimer: the following post is physically and mentally challenging, and should under no circumstances be attempted if you have not read Parts One and Two first. Think of it like the end of the TV show Raven, where the kid has to walk along the path and dodge all the swinging axes and shit. Got that? I’ll be waiting here with the axes. You have been warned.

DON’T BREATHE, 13/09/2016

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Following Green Room earlier in the year, Don’t Breathe is another thriller that cranks up the tension so much that I was in physical discomfort throughout. In the film, a trio of house burglars break into the home of a blind, old man, hoping for an easy haul. Unfortunately things don’t go to plan, and they get more than they bargained for when said blind, old man turns out to be a hardened war veteran. Harbouring a dark secret, the certified badass proceeds to seal the intruders within the house and methodically hunt them down through hearing alone.

Long shots and painful usage of silence keep you at the edge of your seat with unrelenting suspense, and when that suspense is broken by intense panic and visceral violence, it’s like being jolted awake from one nightmare and into another. It’s intentionally hard work and unpleasant, but its craft is rather masterful, and if you want something to shake up your cold, dead heart, Don’t Breathe is one to watch. Just beware of the doggo – it’s no friendly little pupper, that’s for damn sure. (more…)

2016: The Year in Review, Part Two: Hardcore Henry to Kubo and the Two Strings

Haven’t read Part One yet? If not, you don’t deserve to be here. This is like a private club for the people who have already read my first ten reviews, and let me tell you, there’s some absolute gold in there if I do say so myself. Want to join this club and have some super fun times with even more tippety-top reviews? Well get back there and read ’em, and come back a changed person. No need to thank me, I’m just that nice a guy.

HARDCORE HENRY, 10/04/2016

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Shot entirely from a POV perspective, Hardcore Henry may well be the most accurate video game movie to date, and there’s no license to be seen. Taking inspiration directly from the dumb first person shooters that anyone who’s ever held a controller has surely played, the film is like a non-stop 80-minute journey through action game tropes, such as:

– a conveniently silent protagonist
– a villain with questionable motives (and inexplicable telekinesis)
– a series of clearly defined levels
– gameplay tutorials
– objectives marked on a map
– NPC allies
– boss battles
– a turret section
– an escort quest
– a sniper level
– skill-enhancing, self-administered syringes just left lying around
– a final showdown capped off with a quick time event

Reveling in its loud and over-the-top stupidity, Hardcore Henry’s relentless pace and breathless action never once lost my interest. It’s often hilarious too, whether it be the sheer ludicrousness of it all, or the smattering of well-handled comedic moments (one involving a horse and the theme to The Magnificent Seven had me laughing for minutes). Sharlto Copley particularly is a comic revelation in the film, perfectly embodying the video game spirit in the role of super-soldier Henry’s body-swapping guide.

Like The Matrix crossed with Call of Duty, it’s crazy, exciting and tons of fun, and is self-aware enough that its narrative shortcomings can be forgiven. Hardcore Henry is a blast. (more…)

2016: The Year in Review, Part One: The Hateful Eight to Batman v Superman

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As many people will tell you, often, everywhere, all over the internet, all the time, 2016 has been a brutal year. We’ve lost many great actors, artists and musicians, we decided to fuck off out of the EU, and a bumbling, racist idiot has been put in charge of one of the world’s superpowers. It’s also been a year in which pretty much nothing has happened on this blog, and for that you can blame muggins here’s futile skirmishes with motivation (or, more appropriately, lack thereof).

It can’t all be bad though, right? Even when we’re in the shit, there’s always entertainment to keep us chipper… right? Until recently, the pervasive doom and gloom of the year had me thinking that 2016 has been kind of a dud for films. Now though, the more I think back on the films I’ve seen over the past 12 months, the more I realise how great some of them have been.

I’ve faced the pitchforks for defending two of the most hated releases of the year, found a modern horror film that actually scared me, and had the pleasure of watching what is, I fully believe, the best sci-fi since 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps most significantly, it was at the beginning of this year that I fully discovered my love for the films of Studio Ghibli, and getting to see their latest on the big screen, as well as going on a Ghibli adventure of my own, are memories I will keep with me for a long time. How are those for teasers?

Lo and behold, it’s time for me to crawl out of hiding and commence my annual tradition of reviewing every film I’ve seen in a cinema from January to December. Writing over 30 reviews in one go is a mammoth undertaking, and once again I regret not starting this earlier as it can be incredibly hard to remember a mediocre film seen almost a whole year ago. No battle is easily won, of course, and I shall power on for all that remains good in the world. There will inevitably be sacrifices, mostly the time that I could be spending playing Overwatch or watching One Piece, but I will write for what is right, and become legend.

As King Theoden once said:

Arise! Arise, Riders of Theoden! Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered! A sword day… a red day… ‘ere the sun rises! Ride now! Ride now! Ride! Ride to ruin and the world’s ending! Death! Death! DEATH!

Forth, Eorlingas! (more…)

Almost…

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‘Almost’ is an interesting word. When I was at school, dressed in paper-thin sports kit and forced to run the circumference of the playing field at the behest of sadistic P.E. teachers, the mental reassurance of ‘almost there’ was just powerful enough to keep an unfit nerd from keeling over. On the other hand, all the guys who ‘almost’ reached the summit of Everest before dying a frigid death – well, that just sucks.

Getting close to success before failing miserably is one of the worst things a human being can experience, along with anything Minions-related and dragging your scrotum across broken glass. It’s a feeling that crops up all too often in video games, as players accidentally and idiotically leap into a hole right before the end of a level, or get wasted by a troublesome boss with only a sliver of its health bar left.

The latter example is perhaps the most frustrating, scream-inducing, controller-throwing occurrence that can happen in a game, and no series knows that better than Dark Souls. Yesterday, I spent around two and a half hours dragging my balls over the broken glass that is Dark Souls III’s Dancer boss, and I’m glad no one else was in the house because I must have sounded like James Bond in Casino Royale’s torture scene.

As the twirly-swording bastard repeatedly and metaphorically hit me in the groinal area with a knotted rope, I managed to ‘almost’ defeat it numerous times. With only a few stabs needed to bring it down, I could smell victory like a dog can smell anuses, but the proximity of success only made the prospect of failure more worrying. Trembling, with beating heart in overdrive, I desperately rolled and rolled and rolled to avoid the boss’ flailing arms, praying to the deified Hidetaka Miyazaki that I might survive just long enough to land that final blow… But Miyazaki is a cruel spirit, and with the fear of imminent death lingering in my broken mind, I got sliced apart like a melon and had to start all over again.

Though I grunted like a tennis player and swore under my breath, the controller creaking in my vice-like grasp, I didn’t give up. Part of me wanted to rage quit, turn off the console and ride away into the sunset, but I didn’t. I sat there on my sofa a resolute warrior, like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, and powered through the hours as the Dancer taunted me with its deadly ballet.

Like everything else in this marvellous series, I had to appreciate its exquisite design, but in those moments I hated the Dancer with a burning passion. Death was too good a fate for that prick. I didn’t, however, hate the game. The Souls series, including Lovecraftian spin-off Bloodborne, are infamous for their high level of difficulty, but (and I apologise, because literally every Souls fan yammers on about this) it is never unfair.

While they seem like it at times, no boss is impossible, with each one presenting you with a series of attack patterns that can be learned and reacted to accordingly. When you first encounter your adversary, you’ll get wiped within seconds like a pooper in a hurry, but as your mincing becomes as prolonged and repetitious as a John Cage composition, you’ll start to pick up on clues that will help you read the boss’ behaviour.

With time, these get wired into your brain, and you’ll start surviving longer. The boss will still deal out an obscene amount of damage, and have more HP than the HP Sauce factory, but you as a player will improve. There’s a lot riding on your skills of course, as a single cock-up or break in concentration will turn you into dungeon pizza, but knowing that gives a sense of personal, meaningful progression that few other games can boast.

Every time you almost win, and it feels like that little chip of boss HP is judging you as you fade into a loading screen, the crushing disappointment is always accompanied by a powerful determination. You may have just been kicked down for the umpteenth time, but that ‘almost’ victory reassures you that you are ‘almost there’. Just roll a little earlier; be a bit more defensive. Use the environment to your advantage. Play better.

Even when it feels like you’re freezing and suffocating to death atop a mountain, remember to listen to the sweaty, shorts-wearing kid inside your head.

You got this.

And thus endeth the Word of Tom.

Here’s my triumphant fight with the Dancer in full. Get rekt.

A Colossal Pain in the Neck

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When I sold my PlayStation 2, I sold a piece of my heart with it. Being neck deep in the Xbox 360 phenomenon at the time, and playing such great games as Lost Odyssey and Bioshock (the latter of which I never actually finished after a friend ‘kindly’ spoiled the twist for me), I didn’t think I would miss it. How wrong I was, for with the console also disappeared some of the first games I ever genuinely loved.

I can remember well the first time I was properly excited for a game. It must have been around 2002, when ten-year-old Tom was discovering the magic of gaming through his swanky new PS2. It was my first console, having only previously owned a trusty GameBoy Colour, and the effect it had on me could be likened to the Spanish discovering America. No, not the brutal pillaging of the native population, but the window into a whole new world of opportunities. That, and a demo disc featuring some game called Airblade, which I definitely gave more time than it probably deserved.

Anyway, demo discs were, as Super Hans says of crack cocaine, really moreish, and I soon started building up my collection of official PS2 mags. I would put hours upon hours into these little game snippets every month, playing demos for games like War of the Monsters religiously until I could fork out the pocket money to buy the actual game. Aside from the demos though, it was all about screenshots. In the ages before YouTube and video reviews, these little squares were portals into the games of tomorrow, teasing us to the point where we just had to see them in motion.

One day, I opened an issue and saw the coolest thing my little eyes had ever seen – Devil May Cry 2. I’d never played the first installment, but I became totally consumed with these images and counted down the days until the game’s release. When I finally played it, it was everything I ever hoped it could be and more, and it completely changed the way I felt about video games. After I rinsed it, I bought the original Devil May Cry and my first proper gaming obsession was born. Along with Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, it’s probably one of the main reasons I’m such a disgustingly massive nerd.

Post-DMC, images of another, more unusual game began to captivate me, and its eventual demo sold me on my next fixation. This was a title that changed my views on gaming in another, very different way, and is still one of my favourite games of all time. It was, of course, Team Ico’s majestic Shadow of the Colossus. (more…)